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Soundcheck: Why doesn’t rock work on TV?

“There’s too many bands, and you’ve heard it all before.” Eddie Vedder, The Grammy Awards, 1996

I binge-watched Cameron Crowe’s “Roadies” recently, and just as I finished, I heard the news that the show had been canceled by Showtime after a single season.  Rather inexplicably, I felt supremely bummed out about this.

I mean, it’s not like I thought “Roadies” was all that great. I’ve been around the rock 'n’ roll business long enough to know that the genuine article – the real road crew member – does not live the kind of life Crowe depicted in the series.  A friend of mine who has worked some of the biggest tours going, from Roger Waters to Kanye West, let me know that most of the people “in the business” viewed the show as a complete joke, a fantasy far removed from anything resembling their own experience.  This didn’t surprise me.

And yet, something about Crowe’s “Roadies” touched me deeply. It was its blatant romanticizing of an age before the existence of “too many bands” that we’d all heard before, I suspect. It was ostensibly an ode to the behind-the-scenes heroes of the touring rock band, yes, but in the broader sense, “Roadies” was a love letter to the music itself. As such, it was doomed be hoist on its own petard of reverent nostalgia.

“Roadies” took every opportunity available to it to remind the viewer that there was once a time when bands really mattered, made true connection to their audiences, and became a major factor in the lives of listeners.

It took cheap shots at Taylor Swift and millennials, featured lengthy scenes that rather sanctimoniously paid tribute to Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Who, name-dropped Tom Waits as if every viewer should know who he is, and featured a 20-something roadie named Kelly Anne (Imogen Poots) offering lines like “Maybe the brand isn't a brand, it's a feeling," with a straight face. Of course, the critics hated it. Admitting to liking it was not going to make them look cool in an era when a new generation is chomping at the bit, eager to carve out a place for its own musical culture by painting older ones as antiquated, irrelevant and better off forgotten.

The thing is, Crowe is right. The past does need to be remembered, though not at the expense of the present. And if you think you’re cool and you don’t know who Tom Waits is – well, you ain’t that cool, then. To his credit, Crowe featured many millennial generation bands in the show, often giving them as much of the spotlight as revered classic rockers like Lindsey Buckingham and Jackson Browne.

Phantogram, Reignwolf and Frightened Rabbit all featured in the show and My Morning Jacket’s Jim James pops up repeatedly during another episode. Crowe did many things right here, even if his scenarios could occasionally be incredibly corny. His fatal flaw? He revealed how much the music meant to him once, and still means to him today. He cared. Perhaps too much.

The recent cancellations of HBO’s “Vinyl” and FX’s “Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll” made much more sense than the canning of “Roadies.” Both shows featured despicable characters that only a true cynic could warm up to – the cocaine-addled business thugs of the 70s in Mick Jagger and Martin Scorcese’s “Vinyl” wore the right outfits and mentioned the right artists, but never revealed to us why they loved the music enough to devote their lives to it; With the possible exception of the ever-sardonic Dennis Leary character, “S&D&R&R” is populated by wanna-bes eager to sell out their best friends and family members to gain success, revealing in the process more lust for fame than love for music. The musical scenes in both “Vinyl” and “S&D&R&R” were less than convincing, and if you don’t get the music right in a show about music, you’re not gonna make it.

Perhaps it’s just a rock ‘n’ roll thing – Baz Lurhman’s “The Get Down,” concentrating on the tail end of ‘70s R&B and the rise of hip-hop; “Nashville,” detailing the lives of songwriters and performers on present-day Music Row; and “Empire,” a slice-of-life view of today’s hip-hop business, have all done well and in “Empire’s” case, extremely well. That might be because these shows are “about” music in the same way that “Grey’s Anatomy” is about the practice of medicine. Meaning, they are essentially soap operas, and soap operas always do well.

“Roadies,” while abundantly flawed, placed its love for the music front and center. That the show only made it one season feels like a repudiation of all that it sought to celebrate so reverentially. “We’ve heard it all before,” the audience seemed to be saying.

But will they hear it again?


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